Baltacha - a fighter to the end

Elena Baltacha overcame many obstacles in her tennis career

Elena Baltacha overcame many obstacles in her tennis career

First published in National Sport News © by

Elena Baltacha was a fighter.

No one battled harder to overcome obstacles and reach their potential in sport than the former British tennis number one, who has died aged 30 from liver cancer.

Baltacha continued to fight until the end but it was the cruellest irony that she was dealt a final opponent that gave her no chance of victory.

Tennis below the elite level is defiantly unglamorous and strength of character is the biggest asset a player can possess.

Baltacha was pushed back down the ladder on a number of occasions by illness and injury but, as with everything in her life, she saw the positive side.

Recalling a string of low-level tournaments in Asia in 2007 where she was forced to sleep on the floor, she said: "I remember lying there and thinking, 'is this all worth it?'

"But it definitely toughened me up and made me work hard because I wanted to get away from that.

"You come up against a brick wall at every level. That's what tennis does - it weeds you out. You just have to run through it, climb over it or find a way around it."

Baltacha was born in Kiev but moved to Britain aged five when her father Sergei, a professional footballer, signed for Ipswich.

Her mother Olga was also an elite sportswoman having represented the Soviet Union in both the pentathlon and heptathlon.

Sergei moved into Scottish football after a year at Ipswich and it was there that Baltacha grew up and made her first strides in tennis, soon coming under the wing of national coach Judy Murray.

Baltacha's competitive spirit shone through and she burst onto the international scene in 2002 by reaching the third round at Wimbledon, beating the seeded Amanda Coetzer.

She was closing in on the top 100 when the first obstacle was thrown in her path aged 19 with surgery to determine the cause of her persistent liver troubles.

Baltacha was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare and chronic condition that certainly made life as a professional athlete more of a challenge.

But she never complained, never used it as an excuse, and when she returned to the court it was with even more determination and trademark fist pumps.

Baltacha's focus and competitive energy on court was extraordinary, helping her overcome significantly more talented opponents on a regular basis.

She won 16 matches in total at grand slam level, making the third round twice at the Australian Open and winning at least one match at each of the four tournaments.

For a long time clay was her nemesis and when she beat Sloane Stephens at the French Open in 2011, Baltacha described it as the most satisfying win of her career.

Surgery on a prolapsed disc in her back in 2006 was another significant blow but in 2009 she finally achieved her goal of breaking into the top 100.

It was her relationship with Nino Severino, a former kickboxer turned tennis coach, that gave her the belief and impetus to reach the heights she had strived for for so long.

It also brought her happiness off court and the pair married in December, a few weeks after her retirement but tragically only a month before her cancer diagnosis.

In 2010 Baltacha reached her highest career ranking of 49 and she remained in the top 100 for almost three seasons.

One of her proudest moments came in the summer of 2012 when she represented Great Britain at the Olympics in London.

Judy Murray had told her during Wimbledon she had earned a place, causing both to break down in tears on the court.

Baltacha was a stalwart for Britain in the Fed Cup, winning 33 of her 49 matches, many of them alongside Anne Keothavong.

The pair were long-time rivals who pushed each other up the rankings, but the rivalry mellowed in later years and they became close friends, enjoying their role as "old biddies" when Laura Robson and Heather Watson arrived on the scene.

Injury struck again for Baltacha in her last two years on the tour and it was an ankle problem that eventually forced her to retire.

She already had her retirement planned out having set up the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis in 2010 in her home town of Ipswich to give under-privileged girls a chance in tennis.

It quickly expanded to take in children of all backgrounds and Baltacha threw herself into her new life with the same passion, dedication and good humour she had shown in her playing career.

The academy will be one of the recipients of money raised by the Rally For Bally next month, which will now be a tribute to her.

The likes of Andy Murray, Martina Navratilova, Tim Henman and Keothavong will take part in mixed doubles matches held at Queen's Club, Birmingham and Eastbourne on Sunday, June 15.

It is sure to be an emotional day as British tennis remembers one of its very favourite daughters and a player who will continue to inspire for many years to come.

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